“I certainly don’t need to repent!” That was probably the thinking in the minds of many who heard John the Baptist preaching. He was calling people to repent in order to be forgiven, and then baptising those who responded to his message. This was a prophet like the prophets of the Old Testament, with their call to change behaviour.
Others might have felt that it was all right for him to speak to the Gentile unbelievers like that, but how dare he challenge the Jewish people as well! What arrogance to preach that they should repent of their sins and make changes to their lives! As people came forward confessing their sins, he baptised both the Gentiles and the Jews who responded to his message. In other words he expected everyone to admit their sins before God. John had come as a fore-runner to prepare the way for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah. The preparation needed by the people, was the change in attitude firstly towards God and secondly towards their sins.
A). The Meaning Of Repentance
Let’s look at what repentance is not.
i. It is not just feeling sorry for our sins. People can feel sorry that they were caught, without repenting of the act itself. We may feel sorry that our actions or words caused hurt to other people, without really repenting of the inner anger that made us do what we did or said. The inner anger may come from a refusal to forgive, or from a desire to harbour resentment.
ii. It is not just feeling deep remorse. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, and was filled with remorse knowing that he had betrayed innocent blood. When he couldn’t undo the damage he had done, he took his own life. But that wasn’t repentance. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10 “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Judas had only worldly sorrow, deep though it may have been.
iii. It is not just rationalising our sins. That is, giving rational reasons (or excuses) for why we behaved as we did. Often associated with rationalising our sin is the process of projection where we project our guilt on to other people rather than admitting we were wrong. Eve projected her guilt onto the serpent and Adam projected his guilt onto Eve and perhaps onto God Himself, Gen 3:12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” If we sin in any way we are accountable.
What then is repentance? The Greek word is (metanoia) which means a change of mind accompanied by a change in behaviour. It involves a change of mind towards God and my relationship with God. It means a change of mind about my sins so that I adopt God’s attitude to them. The words to “confess” our sins before God, has the meaning to “say the same as” (Greek word is homologeō which is made up of homo = same and logeo = to say). As we confess our sins, we are saying the same thing about them that God has said about them in His word. In other words we are agreeing with God’s verdict on our sins as declared in His word. Eg., 1Jn 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Judas Iscariot didn’t repent. He didn’t turn back to God for His forgiveness. He tried to destroy his guilt by destroying himself. But there’s only one way to remove guilt and that is by repentance and by receiving forgiveness in Christ. He is the only One who can remove sin and the guilt of sin.
B). Repentance Means A Change In Behaviour.
John the Baptist was very strong in stressing the need for repentance to be lived out through a changed life-style. It wasn’t enough to see oneself belonging to the people of God, and being unwilling to change. So in verses 7 to 9 he challenges them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
When the people asked him what changes they needed to make, he replied with specific commands that were appropriate for each group of people who asked him. Generally there was the need to follow the Old Testament teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself, so that “the man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” When Tax collectors also came to be baptised, and asked him what they should do, he replied, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” That was appropriate because they had a reputation for taking more than was required and putting the excess into their own pockets. When some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely ‑‑be content with your pay.” That is, don’t misuse your privileged position of power to get money for yourselves by force or extortion.
In all these practical examples of how penitent people should behave, John is taking them back to the word of God, because the Old Testament teaching, especially the ten commandments, had already prohibited the sinful practices that John now condemned. “You shall not steal”, “you shall not give false testimony against your neighbour”, “you shall not covet”, summarises what John told them. As repentant people they were to be living out the word of God in their lives.
C). Repentance Means A Deepening Relationship With Jesus Christ
John could have enjoyed all the notoriety of being a great preacher, and attracting crowds of followers who would continue to hang on his every word. But he was the fore-runner to the Messiah, not the Messiah. So he began to turn people away from himself to look forward to the coming Messiah, whom we know to be Jesus of Nazareth. He said, “I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John’s mission was to get people ready to meet Jesus, and to put their trust in Him. John’s baptism was symbolic as a sign that sins could be washed away as people repented and responded to the message. But when Jesus came, He would baptise with the reality of the person and power of the Holy Spirit. It would be the real thing. Those who would accept Jesus would be purified as by fire, and also be strengthened by the indwelling Holy Spirit. John couldn’t provide this inward reality, only Jesus could. But people needed to become open to receive His message, by repenting of their sin, and by God’s grace living by the word of God in Scripture.
Change? Who? Me?
None of us like to admit that we need to change, because sometimes we are quite happy to remain where we are in life. For those who have never put their trust in Christ, we see here the need to come in repentance, confessing their sins, especially the sins of unbelief and rebellion against Christ, and asking for His forgiveness. Asking Him to baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Why did I stress these things in a Healing Service as I have done on numerous occasions? Because all of us need more spiritual, physical and emotional healing. If I refuse to admit my sin before God, it exacts a heavy physical and emotional toll on me, as David declared in Psalm 32, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me… Then I acknowledged my sin to You, and did not cover up my iniquity, I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” I can only know the release and freedom of forgiveness if I am willing to open up my sins to Him in genuine confession and ask for His forgiveness. God covers over the sins that we uncover before Him. (That is the meaning of the atonement).
My prayer is that as we read or preach these words from Luke 3 the Holy Spirit will minister to each of us and to others, to show us areas where we may need to be forgiven. As we confess them and ask God’s forgiveness in Jesus, His healing power can come upon us, to bring us more physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Mind you, our primary motivation in repenting of our sin is to please Him by obeying Him and not simply to get more healing!
Blog No.166. Posted by Jim Holbeck. Saturday 28th November 2015